How Often Do Couples Express Compassion to Each Other?

New research shows how partners show compassion.



( - Yuri A /

Imagine you’re coming home from work at the end of a long day. You feel tired and distracted, and you might be looking forward to an evening of relaxing on the couch—but you also know you need to put dinner on the table, care for children or pets, and complete household tasks.

In situations like this, during the hustle and bustle of everyday life with our families, how much compassion do couples express? A recent study sought to test out this question—and found that expressions of compassion are surprisingly common, but the patterns behind when we express compassion are somewhat unexpected.

How often do people express compassion?
In the paper, published recently in the Journal of Family Psychology, researchers examined how often married couples express compassion to each other in their daily lives. As part of a larger study on family life, trained videographers recorded families interacting over four days. The results were drawn from 29 families with children from the greater Los Angeles area.

The researchers collected over 1,200 hours of recordings, including morning and evening routines, as well as full days on the weekends. To identify potential instances of compassion, the research team first identified words that might indicate compassion and searched through the transcripts of the recordings for each time couples used these words. This included words more directly related to helping (such as the words “help” or “care” or the phrase “you OK?”) as well as words that might come up in the expression of compassion (such as “good” or “wrong”). Then, they looked at these interactions more closely to determine whether an expression of compassion had occurred.

Focusing on the parents, the researchers found that expressions of compassion were quite common — when interacting, couples expressed compassion to each other about twice per hour on average. These expressions of compassion included a range of actions, such as offering an apology when someone noticed their partner feeling stressed, or asking, “What’s wrong?” after hearing their partner take a potentially stressful work call.

The researchers also found that there weren’t gender differences here — husbands and wives expressed compassion to each other about equally often.

Given the wide-ranging benefits of compassion, the fact that couples express compassion to each other readily is good news. And, importantly, these expressions of compassion didn’t occur in the research lab (where you might expect couples to be especially attuned to their partner’s behavior), but in everyday life. Galen McNeil, staff psychologist and research scientist at UCLA and lead author of the study, explains that it’s one thing to express compassion in the relatively distraction-free environment of a research lab. But that might not be reflective of how much compassion couples actually express at home, when lots of other things — such as household tasks or an influx of notifications from our phones — are also competing for our attention.

Who expresses more compassion?
In addition to measuring how much compassion partners expressed on average, the researchers looked at what might explain the differences in how often particular individuals showed compassion. Participants had filled out surveys measuring their depressive symptoms and neuroticism (the tendency to experience negative emotions), as well as how they perceived the quality of their relationship. The researchers found that, when wives felt more depressed, their husbands expressed more compassion, suggesting that husbands extended more support when their wives were in need.

However, some of the other findings were more counterintuitive. When husbands perceived their relationship to be lower-quality, they showed more compassion toward their wives. Similarly, when husbands were more neurotic, they also engaged in more compassion. For women, their perception of the relationship, neuroticism, and depression were not related to how much compassion they expressed to their partners.

Given the wide range of benefits compassion has, it might seem surprising that men who were expressing more compassion were more neurotic and thought their relationships were in worse shape. One explanation, according to the researchers, is that these men might be especially vigilant for signs of potential problems in their relationships, and that expressing compassion might be a response to their worries about how the relationship is going.

Interestingly, this interpretation suggests that, when people express compassion, it may sometimes have more to do with their own levels of stress. One implication of this, McNeil explains, is that if your partner is expressing a lot of compassion to you, it might be worthwhile to also check in with them: Showing compassion to others could be a sign that someone also needs support for themselves.

The researchers suggest that one direction for future studies could be to look at the context in which compassion occurs. Since partners who expressed more compassion weren’t more satisfied with their relationships in the current study, McNeil wants to investigate why. Perhaps, for example, there are some contexts in which expressing compassion is more beneficial, and others where it is less so. Additionally, the authors point out that compassion can also be expressed nonverbally, and one potential direction for future research could be to analyze nonverbal behaviors in addition to the words people use.

Overall, the research finds that people express compassion relatively frequently — about twice an hour when interacting with their spouse. However, it also suggests that our reasons for expressing compassion aren’t always as straightforward and other-focused as we might think.

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This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Click here to read the original article.